Israeli Arab Citizens

As Reform Jews, we have profound pride in the State of Israel, a vibrant democracy, and its accomplishments over the past 61 years. We rejoice in the existence of Israel as a haven for those fleeing lands of oppression and revel in the opportunity for the Jewish people to continue to develop a spiritual and cultural home in accordance with Jewish ideals—among them the promise of freedom and justice for all its citizens.

Israel's strength and survival depend on the democratic nature of the Jewish state and on the moral character of the state. The principles on which Israel was founded are clear. As stated in Israel's Declaration of Independence, the nation "will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture." These imperatives require that we be ever sensitive to the aspirations and just demands of Israel's minority citizens.

Arab citizens comprise approximately one-fifth of Israel's population. Arabic is an official language in Israel and Israeli Arabs are accorded the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, with the exception of compulsory military service (although volunteer service is encouraged by the government). Israeli Arabs serve in the Knesset. The years since Israel's founding have seen numerous economic and social improvements for Arabs living within Israel, which has a higher standard of living than any of the surrounding countries. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from 1961-1996, median years of schooling dramatically rose and infant death rates significantly fell within the Israeli Arab population.

Yet like every democracy, Israel faces challenges in living up to its ideals. In particular, despite improvements in the lives of Israeli Arabs, too often the Israeli Arab reality falls short of the values of equality espoused in Israel's founding document. According to a July 2008 report released by the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel (Sikkuy), the gaps in health, housing, education, employment and welfare between the Arab and Jewish sectors in Israel have increased in recent years.[1] These gaps are a function of many historical and political factors involving not only decisions of the Israeli government but also those of local Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab leaders regarding prioritization and allocation of resources. Fifty percent of Israeli Arabs (and 65.7 percent of Arab children) live below the poverty line, while that percentage decreases to 15.7 among Jews (and to 31.4 percent for Jewish children). Jews outpace Arabs in life expectancy and have lower rates of childbirth mortality.[2] The 2007 Sikkuy equality index reported that Israeli Arabs received "only 71 percent of the education resources due to them, based on their relative share in the population; 64 percent of what they are eligible for with regard to job-creation and training; and only 49 percent of their share of welfare funding," and found large gaps in mortality rates and life expectancy, poverty, state employment, and other measurements.[3]

In 2000, the Israeli government established the Or Commission to investigate the root causes of clashes between Arab citizens and the state, which had resulted in the deaths of 12 Israeli Arabs. The report concluded that "Government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory….[A]chieving equality for the Arab citizens of Israel should be a prime objective of the government….In this context, the government should initiate, develop, and operate programs aimed at reducing inequality, while highlighting budget gaps in areas such as education, housing, industrial development, employment, and services. Special attention should be paid to the plight and abject living conditions of the Bedouin."[4]

The Negev Bedouin, who number 155,000-170,000 and whose population is projected to continue to grow rapidly, are especially affected by legal and other hurdles that have resulted in many of them living in unrecognized villages, lacking access to medical care, water, electricity, and threatened by home demolition.

In 2008, the Israeli government's Goldberg Committee, formed to make recommendations to the government for the solution of two issues – land ownership claims of Bedouin Arabs in the Negev and recognition of the unrecognized villages – published its report, acknowledging a series of omissions and failures in Israel's treatment of the Arab community in the Negev.[5]

During an October 12, 2009 Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to Israeli Arabs as an "inseparable part of the State of Israel" and stated, "We in the Government want to, and will, act so that you have fully equal opportunities in all areas – education, employment and infrastructures. Our intention is to implement the goals that we all share – peaceful coexistence, good neighborly relations and a prosperous future for our children, as citizens with equal rights in the State of Israel."

Israel's Minister of Minorities Avishay Braverman has said, "Equality and partnership is not only written in our Declaration of Independence, it is not only moral, but it is also essential for the State of Israel, for its sustainable growth. If we do not do what is right and wise, we will be pushing the young Israeli Arabs into adversaries. Therefore, partnership and equality for Israeli Arabs is not only good for the Arabs, it is also good for the Jews."

In its 2006 resolution on the State of Israel's Arab Citizens, the World Zionist Congress identified the improvement of dialogue and coexistence between Arab and Jewish citizens "as an important and relevant Zionist goal which will assist in the strengthening of Israeli society."

Rabbi Eric Yoffie has said, "There is no excuse for discrimination against individual Arab citizens in housing, employment, or education, and neither can discrimination in public funding for Arab municipalities be tolerated." Without addressing the inequalities between its Jewish and Arab citizens, Israel will not be able to achieve fully its founding ideals and its ability to achieve peace with its neighbors is made more difficult.

The Reform Movement has a long history of supporting Israel in its efforts to face its challenges. The URJ is a member of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues, founded in response to the Or Commission to help advance the goal of equality between Israeli Jews and Arabs. The Inter-Agency Task Force, whose more than 80 member organizations include United Jewish Communities, American Jewish Committee, the Anti Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Orthodox Union, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has worked to: educate the American Jewish community on majority-minority relations in Israel, increase awareness of inequities facing Israeli Arab communities and provide effective solutions, advocate on behalf of civic equality, strengthen civil society activities and leadership, and make civic equality in Israel a priority for the Jewish people. In 2009, the Central Conference of American Rabbis Board of Trustees adopted its own "Resolution on Arab Citizens of Israel." Our IsraelReligiousActionCenter continues to champion the cause of minority rights -- fighting all forms of racism, advocating on behalf of equal rights for Druze schools, equal distribution of grazing rights, and many other issues of civil equality affecting Israeli Arabs. Anat Hoffman, IRAC's Executive Director, reminds us that "in a democracy it's the minority's rights that must be protected." Many of our synagogues in Israel have programs of outreach to Israeli Arabs, including our DanielCenters in Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

  1. Recognize Israel's repeated commitment and efforts to address inequality among Jewish and Arab citizens, reflecting the principles in its Declaration of Independence.
  2. Encourage the Israeli government in its efforts to implement its Or Commission recommendations to reduce the gaps between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel in all areas of life, including but not limited to education, housing, industrial development, employment, and services, and commend Israeli Minister of Minorities Avishay Braverman for his leadership on these issues.
  3. Support the Israeli government in addressing the issues of unrecognized Bedouin villages, equal rights for Bedouin citizens, and needed infrastructure in the form of health, education, and other essential services, as reflected in the Israeli Government's Goldberg Committee report.
  4. Work with the IsraelReligiousActionCenter and other appropriate entities to support efforts in Israel to address inequality and discrimination.
  5. Support the efforts of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues to educate the North American Jewish community about these issues and mobilize our efforts to assist Israel in addressing this important challenge.
  6. Partner with the Central Conference of American Rabbis and other arms of the Reform Movement to educate Reform Jews and the broader Jewish community about the importance of addressing equal rights for Israeli Arab citizens, by:
    1. Encouraging our congregations to include issues of the rights of Arab citizens of Israel in programming and education to foster greater awareness, understanding, advocacy, and support; and
    2. Encouraging Reform Movement Israel programs and missions, including those run by NFTY, to include issues of Arab-Jewish equality as part of their programming.

[1] "Economic Gaps Between Jews and Arabs Growing." Haaretz. July 13, 2008.

[2] New Israel Fund. Inequality Growing Between Israeli Jews and Arabs.

[3] Quoted from Haaretz. Download report.